Thursday, April 11, 2013

Women and the Southern California Art Scene: Part Two

Helen Lundeberg
Interior with Painting
ca. 1982
Acrylic on Canvas
Up until the latter half of the twentieth century, Southern California had continually been the stepchild at the hands of Bay area intellectuals, in the same way that Europe had long felt culturally superior to America. San Franciscans saw themselves as “old money” with more class, a more varied culture, truly sophisticated art patronage, and more, as well as superior cultural institutions.[1] As Los Angeles reinvented itself in the late 70s and into the 80s—downtown got an infusion of art galleries, and encouraged artists to move into the city with the promise of inexpensive loft space for living and working. The city became a business center for the Pacific Rim. With the rise of the Getty Museum, the L.A. County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles, the current scene in art and culture has shifted southward to Southern California.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Southern California’s towns evolved from supply centers for ranches to large cities which traded with Pacific Rim countries and developed businesses in real estate, oil, and manufacturing. The population of the Los Angeles area swelled from 102,000 to 1,750, 000 during this period.[2] Although each has its own distinct history, the towns shared the arrival of the railroads, boom times, the growth of sizable populations, and the development of their first resident art communities. Initially, art was rare—restricted primarily to documentary landscape drawings in pencil or watercolor by itinerants and portraits of Spanish-Mexican aristocracy. Many women artists in the west were limited by the physical rigors of painting the landscape. This was especially true in Southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico, where much of the land was still rugged, raw terrain, considered unfit for the woman artist whether traveling on foot, by horse, or by carriage. As a result, much of the artwork created by women artists was paintings of flowers, interior scenes, portraits, and genre scenes.
Elsie Payne
The Thrifty Drug Store
ca. 1945
Oil on Canvas
27 x 34 inches
Irvine Museum

However, small numbers of women rose to the challenge and a few early painters, such as Marion Wachtel, recorded the stark beauty of the outdoors. Although the art being produced during that period in Southern California, in particular was not quite on par with that of San Francisco, the work is crucial to the art history of the southern part of the state. It represents a time when artists, studios, art exhibitions, art reviews in newspapers and magazines, commercial art galleries, art collectors, and patrons began to appear. The period also witnessed the first locally developed aesthetic; a communal way of representing the landscape.
Anna Hills
Picnic Beach, Laguna
ca. 1920
Watercolor
5 x 7 inches


Art in Southern California grew in the general prosperity that followed the link of the Santa Fe railroad in 1885. In Los Angeles, a town that was more interested in real estate than art, the first artists worked tirelessly to have their work noticed.  Few women artists ranked equally with their male counterparts over the first two decades of the century. They placed their paintings in well-trafficked areas, and banded with other artists to hold exhibits. The Los Angeles School of Art and Design was established in 1887, by a young woman by the name of Louisa Garden, and it flourished through 1919. Within a year of opening, Garden was organizing a club for artists. Her art association included lay members, held lectures, and maintained a permanent exhibition in its gallery of either loaned work, or artwork by the school’s students.[3]
Art classes sprang up in a number of locations, including elementary and high schools as well as the Throop Polytechnic Institute in Pasadena, and in some of the newly instituted colleges such as the University of Southern California. Women joined any one of several art clubs that were founded, among them the Ruskin Art Club [4] which offered a self-conducted art study program in the then fashionable field of prints.  The club also sponsored public exhibitions, lectures and art tours to Europe. Articles on local artists began to appear sporadically in the Los Angeles Herald and the Los Angeles Times.

Despite growing wealth in Los Angeles, most artists scrambled for patronage. Some made occasional illustrations for The Land of Sunshine, a pamphlet created by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce to extol the virtues of the California climate with regards to health, and in other locally published periodicals. Some women taught art, others painted portraits, but only a small number of artists found patronage among the few local millionaires from Bunker Hill, who had an interest in art.  While the art scene still attempted to become established, two broad artistic philosophies struggled for precedence. Some artists were “Americanophiles.” Those artists believed that a new, uniquely American art could result, if American artists rejected European training and embraced academic ideas, that derive their inspiration directly from the landscape and life, especially that of the American West. The other group had its ideals firmly rooted in the European tradition.
The “Western Myth” refers to those rugged individualists living in a lawless land, doing what's right and keeping their loved ones safe—visiting death and destruction (in highly stylized, impossible combat "dueling" situations) on those who threaten them or their loved ones with harm. The fantasy was especially fueled by the early movie industry in California. Boom town Los Angeles was looked upon as a place unrestrained by East Coast establishment ideas and institutions—and artists saw it as free place, where an artist who had ability and drive could devise something really “American” and new. The Western image—Indians, missions, Spanish/Mexican rancho life, and local landscapes were painted by Los Angeles’s resident “Western” artists, who moved around the Southwest and West, painting Native Americans or frontier life. The train provided a convenient connection between Los Angeles and Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos. When "Anglo" artists began to settle in the Santa Fe area in the opening years of the twentieth century, they discovered a mother lode of images, esthetics, and amenities. The main draw to the region, as elsewhere in the west, was the landscape. It was, and continues to be, a matchless blend of shape, color, and light. 
Alice Schille
Winding Road, New Mexico
ca. 1926-36
Watercolor on paper
18 x 21 inches
There were a host of artists who settled in Southern California during the early years of the twentieth century, who were independent spirits labeled “eccentrics.” Born and raised in either Europe or the Eastern United States, they preferred isolation, and made a conscious choice to isolate themselves from their peers. Artists Helen Forbes and Dorr Bothwell, both from San Francisco, went in search of wild, untamed, nature, and settled in Death Valley and Joshua Tree, painting haunting landscapes that bordered on the surreal. Even in Los Angeles, artists such as Lorser Feitelson, (artist, art instructor, and husband of Helen Lundeberg) moved to Southern California from San Francisco, where he felt that the community was too tightly knit, much like New York. Artists enjoyed the fact that, in Southern California, although they were part of a community, they had to travel two or three days to visit one another—“very few knew each other, or if they did, they never saw each other.”[6]
In Southern California, before 1920, only a few artists were painting the perpetually sunny coast, rolling hills, eucalyptus trees, and Southern Sierras. The earliest landscape artists were challenged by the lack of precedence—as there were no established themes or compositions to follow. In those days, Los Angeles itself would have been the perfect location for interesting cityscapes, but only a few have surfaced, mostly downtown scenes and paintings of Chinatown. The late nineteenth century backlash against urbanization might have led most Southern California painters to render pure landscapes. Some painters created a California version of American Impressionism or plein-air style, which can be traced as a concurrent phase of the American Impressionist movement and as a direct offshoot of the French Impressionist style. The style was established in California, at a time when an American version of Impressionism was just becoming acceptable, in general, throughout the United States. Artists who did not have European training but realized that they had to paint in a style that was acceptable to collectors, utilized Barbizon stylistic elements, through training with artists of that background or through book illustrations. [7] The practitioners were a closely knit group of professional artists who painted together and were active in numerous artistic societies, on the East Coast as well as in California. They not only exchanged ideas, but were open to outside influences.
Dorr Bothwell
Pensioner's Row, Port Gamble
ca. 1926
Pastel on paper
 14 1/4 x 15 1/2 inches



  [1] Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, California Art: 450 Years of Painting and Other Media (Los Angeles: Dustin Publications, 1998), 123.
 [2] Ibid., 65.
 [3] Los Angeles Art Association, Chronological History of the Los Angeles Arts Association, http://www.laaa.org/about/timeline.html (accessed January 18, 2012). Louisa Garden MacLeod, principal of the Los Angeles School of Art and Design, organized an Art Association, which served as Los Angeles's first public art gallery and compensated to some extent for the lack of a public art museum. Nonetheless, the city's residents continue to clamor for a more official institution.
 [4] Windsor Village: The Early History of Windsor Village, http://www.windsorvillage.org/history-of-windsor-village-losangeles (January 19, 2012). The Ruskin Art Club was established in Windsor Village in 1888 by some of Los Angeles’s most prominent and socially-elevated women. Limited to a membership of 100 to maintain its exclusivity, club members held annual study programs and dedicated themselves “lovingly and earnestly to the study and democratic availability of art.”
 [5] Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, California Art: 450 Years of Painting and Other Media, 123.
 [6 Lorser Feitelson, interviewed by Fidel Danieli, Los Angeles Art Community, Group Portrait, Oral History Program, University of California at Los Angeles Art Library, 1982, n.p., Tape no. 1, side 1, http://archive.org/stream/lorserfeitelsono00feit#page/n37/mode/2up (accessed June 2012).
 [7] Dita Amory, "The Barbizon School: French Painters of Nature," Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bfpn/hd_bfpn.htm